That the European Union is having problems with its refugee policy is pretty obvious. This past week it’s been suggested that Angela Merkel could lose her job over the issue for example. The thing is though, it’s a real problem. One that doesn’t have any obvious solution that will please everyone. There are certain duties in international law, certain problems with the manner in which EU law works and even a certain dissonance between varied claims about what is moral and righteous to do. But the real problem underlying all of this is that it’s a large enough problem that we cannot just ignore it. The influx of immigrants is of a similar size to that of the Goths when they so destabilised the Roman Empire.
Note that this does not mean that we must pursue one or the other course of action – that’s still to be determined. Sure, we’ve all got ideas about that too. But what it does mean, insist, is that it’s not something we can just blithely overlook in the hope that it’ll all sort itself out. Our numbers are just too large here.
So, all of this might appear to be just the usual political stage posturing:
EU leaders have differed sharply over how a new deal on curbing irregular migration will work.
The agreement foresees the creation of secure centres to receive migrants.
France’s president said his country would not set any up as it was not the EU country where migrants landed first.
Italy’s prime minister – who had held up agreement at the Brussels summit – said centres could be anywhere within the EU. EU President Donald Tusk warned of difficulties to implement the deal.
That deal’s not going to fly and we all know it.
Angela Merkel won a reprieve in the crisis that has rocked her three-month-old government after her Bavarian coalition partners welcomed a deal at Friday’s EU summit that toughens the bloc’s policy on migration.
Ms Merkel said on Friday she had concluded bilateral agreements with Greece and Spain that would allow Germany to send back refugees to those countries if they had previously been registered there.
Berlin promised financial help in exchange, dropping its longstanding insistence that Greece raise sales tax on five Aegean Islands — a condition of its international bailout that had particularly incensed Athens.
That’s actually amusing as the deal to send them back is just what the law currently is.
So, to give the background. There’s legal immigration which is nothing to do with what is being discussed here. Then there’s the potentially illegal type which comes in two flavours, would be economic migrants and refugees. There’s obviously a bit of blurring of lines there as – entirely rationally- it’s possible to believe that someone escaping abject poverty is a refugee, not an economic migrant.
Refugees have a certain amount of international law governing what must be done. Someone in danger – this can be because of war, oppression, politics, sexuality, etc – has the right, yes the right, to asylum. They also have a duty which goes with that, the duty to seek such asylum in the first safe place they come to. You don’t get to pick and choose, nor cross safe places to reach another. The duty of all of us is to offer safety, the duty to the seeker is to accept it in that first safe place.
Sure, this causes some oddities. No one sitting in Calais has a claim to asylum in Britain as France is such a safe place. But the same person, if they’d arrived at Heathrow on an airplane directly from Afghanistan, or DR Congo, does have that right to seek asylum in Britain. That’s just the way the system works.
Then there’re our economic migrants. These don’t in fact have rights at all, nor do we have duties to them. Well, obviously, treat them well and according to law etc, but the law doesn’t say we must let them in or anything. And absolutely any system is going to have some number who do cross borders and do just get on with life. The difficulty becomes when it’s how many?
At which point a bit of history. Fourth century AD and the Goths turned up on the Danube border of the Roman Empire. The usual reason given being that they were being driven west by the expansion of the Huns further east. Lots of argy bargy about whether they should be let in and so on. They and similar confreres (Visigoths, Ostrogoths etc) went on to sack Rome, conquer Spain and Carthage and so on, all that mess of the late empire.
The point being the number of them. At this distance numbers get shouted about but the Goths might have been about 100,000 people. That’s kids an’ all. Roman Empire population was perhaps 50 million.
Which is interesting, isn’t it? Because 2015 saw some 1 million refugees – that’s asylum and economic together – coming into an EU of 500 million or so. 0.2% of population both times.
No, this is not to say that they’re going to sack Rome – not that anyone would notice these days – but it is to say that this is a point of such size that we cannot just ignore it. Something must be done – so, what?
Current law says that the asylum seekers should stay where they are safe and when it’s safe to go home they can and should. They can, at the instigation of the host community, also be granted leave to stay there. The economic migrants can be rounded up and sent home. Inside the EU there’s a little more detail, in that some argue that the two groups should be spread around, all carrying a part of the burden. The actual current rules state that it’s the first EU nation reached which has to deal with it.
At which point, well, what? We’ve a problem which is of sufficient size that something must be done. So, what should be done?